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Marie Hagerty's Mutating Canvases

Australian Art Review 2/11/11

Prue Gibson

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Prue Gibson explores the artists swelling and elastic forms which appear to change shape before the viewers eye.

Much of Marie Hagerty’s imagery looms from the canvas; her sculptural forms hurl themselves into an uncomfortable space between the canvas and the eye. The paintings accuse the viewer to long-sightedness and so we have to take a step back, to accustom our eye. This is an intrusion of personal space, an experience that intimidates and endears us simultaneously.

Hagerty’s forms suggest to us the sensuality of the human form, the eroticism of the flesh. This does not make sense, at first, because if you take apart the images in a reasoned way, all we see are paper-sharp, hard-edge forms with mysterious blurrings and beguiling shadows. It seems unreasonable to see animalistic tension or secret seductions in these seemingly straightforward abstract forms.

This is the kind of paradox of irrationality of which American philosopher Donald Davidson (1917-2003) writes. Davidson suggests that we make decisions based on evidence and considered information. When we make decision contrary to the information we have amassed, then we are acting an irrational way. However, if the (irrational) decision followed a commonsensical pattern, based on intellectual data, then it contradicts the idea of the irrational. Thus, a paradox emerges. Luckily for us, paradoxes work well in paint.

Hagerty’s greatest skill is her manipulation of forms, their relationship to each other and the effect they have on the viewer. While these are just shapes, they almost all refer to sensuality, even sexually, charged encounters. Hips, faces, torsos and cheeks in proximity or barely touching. While it is unusual to anthropomorphise trees or rocks, animals or land masses, it is less common to apply human characteristics to formal abstracted forms. This is bound up with the tactile surfaces of the paintings. The shimmering surface sensation of Hagerty’s works is related to an in-between quality. There is a passionate undercurrent at play, where Hagerty (by her own admission) is held ransom by her pictures. They urge her forwards in directions she might not have originally intended to  move. When she begins, she never has a finished work in mind. The forms are hard-edge colour blocks of paint but she creates space behind them, through her mischievous shadows. These shadows can be straightforward or more mysterious. There is a vigour of forces at work in her paintings: pushing from behind and pulling from in from, while leaving the enigma in between. Hagerty’s paintings offer us cluster of intuition, where emotional connections and cognitive reasons play a part. While her forms indicate intimacy or untouchable engagement, they can also insinuate a feeling of threat or compromised safety. Take the proposition that we are born with a number of basic biological emotions. When looking at a Marie Hagerty painting, we might experience confusion or mild distress. This will result in a furrowing of our eyebrows and a desire to move backwards. The intrusion may be maintained, because we them see the tension between the forms, the sophistication of the shadowing and the complexity of the compositions. Her painting maintains and accentuates our emotions. This is a significant part of wider experience of art.
Hagerty says, “The next painting always comes directly from the last one. I want them to life off the surface, like collages. Shadows are compositional and are not how it works in real life. I am very conscious of creating the illusion of space and depth in my work.” The artist uses collages and cardboard cut-outs in the studio to solve problems and to accentuate complexity. While her new work appears more cartoon-like and rounded than past works, she explains that one of her old teachers from Meadowbank recognised her hand, her mark-making and even her palette in the new work, so Hagerty’s signature is always a constancy.
Hagerty is also conscious of creating an uneasy tension in her paintings. She calls it ‘edginess, weirdness, satire and humour”. With titles like Sumo, Face Off, Magistrate, Night Porter and Danse Macabre, it makes sense that we experience discomfort. It is no coincidence that we see the human in her sculputural forms. And it is no coincidence that our faces misshape when we look at her contortions of paint. The artist holds they key to our emotional experience.
Perhaps Canberra-based Hagerty’s facility with engineering the shifts in our human emotions is due to her long experience with painting and collage. She has been having solo exhibitions since 1988. In 2007, she had a large solo survey show at the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery and she is represented by Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney and Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne. Experience and sophistication, through experimentation, is the best explanation for the complexity of her works.

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